Dr. Edward Zeller On Empedocles

Empedocles of Agrigentum was born about 495-0 B.C., and died at the age of sixty, about 435-0 B.C. By his impassioned eloquence and practical energy, he, like his father Meton, long maintained himself at the head of the Agrigentine democracy; but he attached still more importance to the functions of religious teacher, prophet, physician, and worker of miracles, which his remarkable personality, resembling that of Pythagoras, enabled him to exercise. Concerning his death many romantic stories, some deifying him, others depreciatory, early came into circulation; the most probable account is that having finally lost the popular favour, he died an exile in the Peloponnesus. Of the writings which bear his name, only the two didactic poems, the fusika and the kaqrmoi, can with certainty be ascribed to him; numerous fragments of both have been preserved.

In his mystic theology, Empedocles is allied with the Orphic-Pythagorean doctrines; in his physics, on the other hand, he seeks a middle course between Parmenides (whose disciple he is called by Alcidamas, ap. Diog. viii. 56) and the theory of the universe which Parmenides opposed. With Parmenides, he denies that origin and decay in the strict sense are thinkable; but he cannot resolve on that account to oppose the plurality of things, their becoming and variability; and so, perhaps following the example of Leucippus, he adopts the expedient of reducing becoming to a combination, decay to a separation, and change to the partial separation and combination, of underived imperishable and invariable substances. These substances, however, he conceives as qualitatively distinct from each other, and quantitatively divisible; not as atoms, but as elements. He is the first philosopher who introduced this conception of elements ; the term indeed is of later origin ; Empedocles calls them the "roots of all." Also the fourfold number of the elements, fire, air, water, earth, originates with Empedocles. Neither of these four substances can pass over into another, or combine with another to form a third; all mixture of substances consists in small particles of them being mechanically assembled together; and the influence, which substantially separated bodies exert on each other, is brought about by small particles (aporroai) one becoming detached and entering into the pores of the other; where the pores and effluences of two bodies correspond to one another, they attract each other, as in the case of the magnet and iron. In order, however, that the substances may come together or separate, moving forces must also be present, and of these there mast be two--a combining and a separating force. Empedocles calls the former Love (filothj, storgh), or also Harmony, and the latter Hate (neikoj, kotoj).

But these forces do not always operate in the same manner. As Heracleitus represents the world as periodically coming forth from the primitive fire and again returning to it, so Empedocles says that the elements are in endless alternation, now brought together into unity by love, and now separated by hate. In the former of these conditions, as a perfect mingling of all substances, the world forms the globe-shaped sphere, which is described as a blessed god because all hate is banished from it. The opposite counterpart of this is the entire separation of the elements. Between these extremes lie those conditions of the world in which individual natures arise and decay. In the formation of the present world love first produced a whirling motion in the midst of the substances separated by hate, and these were gradually drawn into it; from this mixture, through the rotatory movement, air or aether first separated itself, and thence was formed the arch of the heavens; next fire, which occupied the place immediately below the aether ; from the earth water was pressed out by the force of the rotation, and from the evaporation of the water came once more air, i.e. the lower atmosphere. The sky consists of two halves, one of fire, the other dark, with masses of fire sprinkled in it; the former is the heaven of the day-time, the latter of the night. The sun, Empedocles, like the Pythagoreans, held to be a mirror which collects and throws back the rays of the heavenly fire, as the moon those of the sun. The swiftness of the rotation occasions the earth and the whole universe to remain in their place.

From the earth, according to Empedocles, plants and animals were produced ; but as the union of substances by love only came about by degrees, so in the origination of living creatures he supposed that a gradual progress led to more perfect results. First separate masses were thrown up from the earth, then these united together as it chanced and produced strange and monstrous forms ; similarly when the present animals and human beings arose, they were at first shapeless lumps which only received their organism in course of time. That Empedocles, on the contrary, explained the construction of organisms according to design by the theory, that of the creations of chance only those capable of life maintained themselves, is neither probable in itself, nor is it asserted by Aristotle (I Phys: ii. 8). He seems to have occupied him self considerably with the subject of living creatures. Concerning their generation and development, the elementary composition of the bones and flesh, the process of breathing (which is effected partly through the skin) and similar phenomena, he set up conjectures which were of their kind very ingenious. He tried to explain the activities of the senses by his doctrine of the pores and effluences : in regard to eight, he thought that emanations from the fire and water of the eye meet the light coming towards the eye. To explain the activity of thought, he brought forward the general principle that each element is recognised by the similar element in us (as also desire is evoked by what is akin and aversion by what is opposed), and that therefore the quality of thought is regulated according to the constitution of the body and especially of the blood, which is the chief seat of thought. This materialism, however, does not deter him any more than Parmenides from placing sensible decidedly below rational knowledge.

With this system of natural philosophy Empedocles made no attempt to reconcile scientifically his mystic doctrine (allied to that of the Orphics and Pythagoreans) of the sinking down of souls into terrestrial existence, of their transmigration into the bodies of plants, animals, and men, and of the subsequent return of the purified souls to the gods; nor his prohibition of animal sacrifices and of animal food. He did not even try to explain away the contradiction between them, though it is evident that these doctrines involve the conception that strife and opposition are the cause of all evil, and that unity and harmony are supremely blessed. Nor do we know whether and where room was left in the physics of Empedocles for the golden age to which a fragment (v. 417 M.) refers ; and if the philosophic poet (v. 389) has, like Xenophanes, set up a purer idea of God in opposition to the anthropomorphic presentation of divinities, it is equally hard to say where this idea could have found a place in his physical system or even how it could have been compatible with it.

Zeller, Edward. Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. New York: Holt, 1889.